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As Occupy Baltimore rape charge fizzles, security and homeless issues remain

Participants asking, should protest continue in its present form?

Above: A month into their encampment near the Inner Harbor, Occupy Baltimore is grappling with negative media scrutiny.

Recent days have hung heavy for Occupy Baltimore. The group has struggled with allegations of sexual assault, revised its sexual assault policy in the face of criticism from, among other sources, a nationally known right-wing website, dealt with an influx of homeless people to their encampment and gotten ensnarled in a shoving incident involving a Fox 45 television news crew filming a critical report.

“I’m a little frustrated. There’s been this scandal-finding approach taken by television journalists with no attempt to actually communicate with people here,” said Ian Logsdon, a member of Occupy Baltimore’s media team.

Never mind that the sexual-assault-at-Occupy-Baltimore allegation that clattered around in the local news cycle for 24 hours turned out to be unfounded. With some in the blogosphere and local media poised to weave any whiff of trouble at Occupy into a dark new narrative, Logsdon remarked, “I’m beginning to hate Twitter.”

In a statement released yesterday, Baltimore City Police Det. Jeremy Silbert said, “At this time, the facts and evidence do not suggest that a sex offense occurred.”

Silbert was responding to press requests that police expand on their disclosure Monday that they were investigating allegations of a Friday night sexual assault and larceny at McKeldin Square, where Baltimore’s branch of Occupy Wall Street has been camped for nearly four weeks.

“While the victim at no time reported a sexual assault to police, detectives offered the victim a precautionary SAFE Exam at Mercy Hospital and reached out to the advocacy community to provide her with support,” police  said via a release that Silbert emailed to the media.

Occupy Baltimore spokespeople, for whom the subject is sensitive, were taking the same sort of cautious tone.

The homeless have been present at Occupy Baltimore since Day One, but their presence now has become an issue.

The homeless have been present at Occupy Baltimore since Day One, but their presence now has become an issue. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“We take reports of alleged sexual assault very seriously, we would never question them and do not consider that it’s our place to comment on them – it’s a police matter,” Logsdon said. “We have a zero tolerance policy for drugs and any sort of violence.”

Asked if they’ve had to enforce that policy, Logsdon said “We have had to ask intoxicated people who wandered in to leave a number of times, but I am not aware of ever catching someone in the act of consuming drugs or alcohol.” He said they’d had no idea about a sexual assault allegation until they heard media reports about it.

In group meetings, though, members have been venting about their frustration dealing with drug addicts, drug users and assorted troublemakers at the site and questioning whether the Occupation in its present form can continue.

Police Report Released

The 22-year-old woman whose report to police was later described to the media as a possible sexual assault said she had gotten into an argument Friday night with her boyfriend at the Inner Harbor and wound up in a tent with a 29-year-old who said he was part of Occupy Baltimore.

When she woke up, according to what she told police, “the cheek on her buttocks was sore and she did not remember what happened.” She also said an $1,800 wad of cash she’d been clutching (from “a settlement”) was gone, according to the report. The woman was transported to Mercy Hospital where a precautionary exam was conducted.

Still, Fox 45 pushed ahead with the story line late yesterday – hours after police had issued their finding of no evidence of a sexual assault.

“Mayor Rawlings-Blake Concerned About Illegal Activity at Occupy Baltimore,” their 4:23 p.m. story declared. (They presumably did not ask the mayor about the daily city mayhem outside of Occupy, for which police have found evidence, incidents like the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl lured by five men into a van in West Baltimore.) The network has been pushing hard on the issue since airing a Monday report showing an unnamed woman who, they say, told the reporters she was raped and robbed.

Fox also filmed a man leading cameras to the edge of a tent, where he picked up what he said were a box of needles and a bag of “ties to tie off with.” Reporter Melinda Roeder described this as “evidence of drug use.”

Coming upon what appears to be a dispute between two tent occupants, Fox 45 then tried to film the encounter. People in the crowd appear to block them, saying, “No cameras.” Both sides have since accused the other of pushing and shoving.

Issues Occupying Occupy: Security and the Homeless

The sexual assault issue was the first negative press for Baltimore’s Occupiers. A pamphlet with group policy on the matter (since rewritten) appeared to dissuade those who believe they were assaulted from going to the police.

Anyone who thought they’ve been sexually assaulted, the pamphlet said, was “encouraged to immediately report the incident to the Security Committee,” which would investigate and “supply the abuser with counseling resources.”

The directive also noted, “Though we do not encourage the involvement of the police in our community, the survivor has every right, and the support of Occupy Baltimore, to report the abuse to the appropriate authorities.”

A reporter for The Baltimore Sun, which reported at length on the pamphlet, noted in a blog post that the pamphlet “came to our attention from a blogger posting on Andrew Breitbart’s big government website.”

Now, there’s the homeless issue. In McKeldin Square, as elsewhere around the country, a growing number of homeless started showing up at Occupy encampments, posing an ethical and logistical problem.

These problems were heightened in Baltimore’s case when homeless advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland last week threatened to file a lawsuit against the city, saying that they were failing to provide enough beds for homeless women.

Some of the homeless people interviewed by The Brew outside the shelter parking lot (where many say they have been sleeping) said they’d found a refuge at Occupy. The Sun reported on this phenomenon as well.

Occupy participants say they’re proud to welcome the homeless as part of the “99 percent” they represent, but are concerned that they might bring with them some security issues or perhaps simply give city officials a rationale for shutting down the protest.

“We are having discussions about whether there is a better way to deal with security,” said Logsdon. Those sometimes-heated discussions are open for anyone to watch on the live feeds of the group’s nightly General Assembly meeting.

Last night, participants worked for the second night in a row through the big question – whether “the whole encampment model” should be retained, tweaked or ditched.

“Overextending Ourselves?”

A woman giving a health committee report asked whether “feeding people who are drug users is further enabling them?” She apologized for the tough message: “I know everyone here has a big heart.” She also told how “we had a scare yesterday [when] a man with a bleeding head who was on heroin walked by our food table.”

Another said that “there are people who feel we’ve over extended ourselves … instead of demanding that the city provide more money to shelter the homeless, we are sheltering the homeless.”

And yet many also spoke passionately against disbanding.

“I would hate for Baltimore to be the first place where voluntary un-encampment happens because of Baltimore’s shit,” said one speaker. “As an Occupy movement, we’re supposed to be stronger than that!”

Speaking on the phone, Logsdon said the group has been trying to “have somebody awake at all times,” but can’t guarantee security.

“We are not a government entity. We don’t have the ability to enforce anything,” he said. “It’s not our space. It’s not like we can exclude people.”

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